A group of football players stand together on the field and smile.
J.J. McCarthy (left) and Ryan Keeler (second left) were close friends during their journeys to play college football. // Courtesy of Herb Keeler

Elijah Shelton was sitting in his apartment playing video games when the phone rang. The UNLV linebacker picked it up and heard his teammate, Lacarea Pleasant-Johnson, on the other side.

Two words changed Shelton’s world:

Ryan’s dead.

“Those two words — at first I didn’t believe him,” Shelton told The Michigan Daily. “But I also knew that wouldn’t be a joke. I was just kind of in shock and quit everything I was doing and reflected on everything.”

Shelton scrambled to call his coaches and confirm the tragic news: Ryan Keeler, his beloved UNLV teammate and defensive end, was found dead in his apartment on Feb. 20, 2023. At just 20 years old, Keeler’s life was claimed by an arrhythmia caused by thickened heart tissue. 

Nearly 2,000 miles away, J.J. McCarthy got an urgent text from his dad that he had bad news. A close friend of Keeler since they played for the same youth football program, the Michigan quarterback struggled to keep his composure. McCarthy and Keeler’s football journeys — including three Illinois State Championship appearances with Nazareth Academy High School — were forever intertwined, from intense workout sessions to state championship games. The news rocked him.

“When he called me, I just broke down and started crying because (Keeler) was someone that worked so hard as he did,” McCarthy told The Daily. “And he was such a phenomenal human being. There’s not a speck of evil in this kid’s heart, and the rest of his life was taken from him like that.”


From the moment Keeler and McCarthy stepped on the field together in the seventh grade, they quickly formed a friendship. So did their families, as Herb Keeler and Jim McCarthy bonded over coaching their sons through a sport they loved. With Ryan at defensive and offensive line, and J.J. at quarterback, the two excelled on the field. With each game, their relationship improved, too.

“Freshman year comes and it was them two,” Herb told The Daily. “They were thick as thieves.”

Once at Nazareth, Ryan and J.J. only blossomed further. They not only bonded on the field, but also through their commitment to the sport off it. J.J., eyeing a future where he’d be a top college prospect, would go to extra workouts or practices to hone his game. Chasing the same dreams, Ryan worked right beside him. And when they finished their workouts, Ryan’s older brother Matt would drive them home.

Courtesy of Tim Racki

“Just working out, that’s really where we started to grow our relationship because he had the same mindset that I had,” J.J. said. “He just wanted to work, work, work, work. And I had never been around somebody that actually met my level of work ethic, (but) he was right there.”

And as Ryan worked hard, his body began to change, too. He grew to 6-foot-5, packing muscle on to a mountainous frame “built to play football” as Jim McCarthy put it. That size gave him more options on the field, and Ryan started to attract Division I interest as a defensive end.

“Sophomore year was when it got frickin’ insane for the two of them,” Herb said. “They almost were having a little competition to get more offers.”

Even when football got serious, Ryan still knew how to keep things light. Making people laugh was his art, and witty quips were his brushes.

“When he sprouted, he never lost that,” Nazareth coach Tim Racki told The Daily. “So even when he came to high school and he became this big football player, the kids, not just the football team, but the kids within the school and the teachers just really, really took to him. Because he was so kind and respectful and was never above it all.”

For Racki, Ryan’s demeanor was essential for a leader on a team that went to the Illinois state finals three times and brought home the title during Ryan and J.J.’s sophomore year. Ryan wasn’t just locker room superglue — his work ethic inspired his teammates.

Even when he became a three-star recruit and attracted more than 30 college offers, Ryan never got cocky. He stayed grounded and helped his teammates grow, including younger players who had just joined the Nazareth program.

“He worked so hard at his craft,” Jim McCarthy told The Daily. “But what really set him (apart) is how he put himself aside to help work with other teammates and kids.”

One of those teammates was Tyler Morris, now a sophomore wideout on the Michigan football team who met Ryan through the Nazareth program. Morris immediately noticed Ryan and J.J.’s friendship, but also the way Ryan’s humor could bring out the best in people.

“He knew a lot of people on the team, being a year older than me,” Morris told The Daily. “He was just, the whole time I knew him, one of the people that’s just always smiling, always joking around. No matter what’s going on, he’s gonna crack a joke or do something to try to make people smile.”

His humor also kept his team grounded — including his coaches. One practice during Ryan’s junior year, Racki was particularly heated in the huddle. As his coach’s anger rose, Ryan scouted out his moment to strike. When Racki finished his rant, Ryan jumped in with a one-liner that made the whole team — including Racki — erupt in laughter.

“I kind of had the clarity after — maybe just relax and it’s football, let’s get back on track,” Racki said. “… (Ryan) had a way of doing that. He knew when teammates would bicker at each other to say something that would calm the waters and get everybody refocused. He was just that mature on the field as a football player … he was just very smooth and witty.”

That wit made Ryan a motivator, too. He was a key two-way player, but he used his rare time on the sidelines to hype up his teammates. Even when Nazareth suffered a rainy 37-13 defeat to Mt. Carmel in the state finals his junior year, Ryan tried to single-handedly will his team forward.

“In that moment, I was quiet — even the coaching staff was quiet,” J.J. said. “But there was one voice that was staying constant the whole game, and it was Ryan Keeler’s voice. And it was just like that little spark of hope that he instilled in all of us. ‘Damn, this dude is a true leader.’ ”

But as COVID-19 shuttered Illinois high school football in Ryan’s senior year, players scrambled to find teams and attract college offers. That split up the duo as J.J. chose IMG Academy in Florida. Ryan took online classes and spent his extra time building his skills in the gym.

J.J. tried to get Ryan to join him in his Michigan commitment, but Ryan eventually decided on a different Big Ten school — Rutgers — for his future. That last state final loss, with Ryan’s voice drowning out a tear-jerking game, was the last they ever played together.


Ryan might’ve worked hard to get to Rutgers, but the situation wasn’t always favorable. Grinding in the gym his senior year helped him enter fall camp prepared, but a hamstring injury took away his first season. As he recovered, Ryan followed J.J.’s career from afar as it began taking off. He hung up a picture of them together at Nazareth in his Piscataway dorm room. His Twitter was full of retweeted J.J. highlights. As Ryan healed up, he couldn’t wait to play against his friend one day.

But by the time spring ball rolled around, the fit wasn’t the same in Piscataway. After conversations with his father and Racki, Ryan chose to enter the transfer portal and packed his bags for UNLV.

Immediately, Ryan made an impression on his new teammates.

“He came in after the summer, kind of a new kid and I just saw him doing drills and I really liked how he played and what he brought to the team on the first day,” Shelton said. “So that’s how I kind of met him for the first time and started to really bond with him.”

Playing a hybrid role between linebacker and edge rusher, Ryan had to fight to earn a spot on the field. So just like he did with J.J. at Nazareth, Ryan got to work. He and Shelton spent hours nightly in the film room dissecting plays and trying to learn from them. It became a ritual.

Eventually, it paid off for Ryan in a breakout game against Air Force in 2022. As the Rebels suffered a 42-7 blowout loss, he checked in on the defensive line and seized his opportunity with seven tackles and a sack. The next game, he earned a start at Notre Dame. His parents got to watch him, too, taking a short drive from Chicago to see him play. For Shelton, that moment made him proud of his teammate.

“He actually ended up starting with our other outside backer over me,” Shelton said. “His face once he found out that he was starting at Notre Dame, he was excited. But he was also his usual self, just kind of asking me 100 questions about little things that he already knew, but he just wanted to be reassured.”

After getting into games his redshirt freshman year, Ryan entered the offseason on a mission. But in February, his health started to decline. For a week, he felt nauseous and sick. Taking medication for the symptoms, he muddled through and continued working on the field and in the classroom.

On Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, Herb Keeler called his son to help him with his homework. It was a ritual he still followed, even with multiple kids in college. Ryan got dinner with some teammates after they wrapped up. After eating, he went back to his apartment and played video games late into the night.

“Ryan wakes up in the morning like 7 o’clock Vegas time, and he Snapchats one of his best friends at Purdue — Jimmy Liston,” Herb said. “He just told him, ‘Man, I can’t believe I still got this cold’ and goes back to sleep and never wakes up.”

After calling his family to give them the tragic news, the first person Herb called was Jim McCarthy. Herb didn’t want J.J. to see that his friend died through social media. When he found out, Jim wanted to break the hard news with as much sensitivity as possible using their bond as father and son.

For J.J., losing a close friend put life in perspective. 

“In this business, it’s always do, do, do, do, do — mind over body, all that,” J.J. said, raising the pitch of his voice to disagree. “Listen to my body. If my body’s really going through something, if it’s really in a place where I feel like pushing is almost counterproductive, I need to speak up and talk to somebody. 

“That was another lesson that I learned from it because I know Ryan, I guarantee he just said he was fine, doing alright to the trainers because that’s the kind of guy he is. He’s gonna push through anything. And we’re all human beings at the end of the day; we can’t push through everything.”

J.J. was also left with a sense of guilt over Ryan’s death. 

Once their football paths drove them separate ways, J.J. and Ryan didn’t get many chances to talk. Instead of working out side by side or riding home together after practice, they both played for separate programs. They were busy, and no one expected to lose a friend so suddenly.

“I felt awful that like we talked, but I didn’t really make an effort to really reach out and talk to him weekly and stuff like that,” J.J. said. “So it was just like the overwhelming sadness and just a really, really hard life lesson.”

J.J. started calling and texting his old high school teammates. Not wanting to take relationships for granted, he revisited those friends that he loved but couldn’t always see.

J.J. couldn’t make it home for Ryan’s funeral. Neither could Shelton, who watched a livestream of the service and also attended a vigil at the 47-yard line of UNLV’s field in homage to Ryan’s jersey number.

In Chicago, Racki walked into the funeral at Christ Church of Oak Brook on March 3. Tears dripped down his face. For a coach who raises players like sons, Ryan’s death hit Racki hard.

Dozens of Ryan’s friends and family filled the pews, forming what Racki called a “football reunion of sorts,” even under mournful conditions. 

“It was a very, very, extremely tough evening,” Racki recalled.

But as each speaker shared a story or two about their fallen friend, each unleashed their hearts to show love for Ryan.

Tyler Morris attended Ryan’s funeral, too. He spoke with the Keeler family, including Ryan’s older brother Matt Keeler, who plays offensive line at Texas Tech. The group reminisced about state title games and practices, Ryan’s jokes and his happy-go-lucky charm. So did all of the other teammates, coaches and classmates who made it to the service. 

“Just for us to all be there — I feel like we’re all kind of separated and we’re starting to do our own things,” Morris said. “But it’s all (us) coming back to be able to celebrate his life.”

As they swapped stories of Ryan’s huddle jokes and love for all, the mourners kept sharing what made him so special. The light inside of him — let out through little quips and lovable jabs — united them all.


On Saturday, when No. 2 Michigan welcomes UNLV to Ann Arbor, J.J. would have lined up with Ryan staring him down on the defensive line. It was a date both sides had looked forward to after Ryan transferred, a chance for high school friends to reconnect once more, doing what they loved.

Now, J.J. has this date circled for a different reason. It’s a chance to honor Ryan. 

UNLV has played all season with a decal for Ryan’s No. 47 on the front of its helmets. The Rebels have also broken down their huddles this season with “47 on three.” For them, Saturday’s game against Michigan — and Ryan’s former teammates — is another chance to honor Ryan’s legacy.

“I’m glad we have it just to be able to look at each other every day and see that number,” Shelton said. “It’s special and it definitely makes me think about just everything when I see that on everyone’s helmet — just to push and do what Ryan did.”

On the other sideline, Ryan’s Nazareth Academy teammates will honor him, too. Morris plans to write “RK47” on his wrist tape as a tribute to Ryan’s legacy. J.J. has a plan to alter his usual traditions, too.

“I’m gonna write 47 on my hand in place of the smiley face because that smiley face is a reminder to have fun and go out there, do your best,” J.J. said.

“But this game is for Ryan.”

Ryan Keeler smiles while suited up for UNLV.
Courtesy of Herb Keeler